September 4, 2008

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Traitor (PG-13)
Don Cheadle plays a man caught in the middle of an international tourism investigation in Traitor, a cool little action thriller with a welcome thinky edge.

Samir Horn (Cheadle) has an American accent but was born in Sudan, where he learned about Islam from his father, who was assassinated in front of him (we donít know by whom) when Samir was just a boy. Now heís a dealer in explosives who gets picked up in a raid of a mosque in Yemen and thrown in Yemeni jail as a terrorist. After brushing off the FBI agents ó Roy (Guy Pearce) and Max (Neal McDonough) ó who showed up after the raid, Samir seems destined to rot in the dusty prison until he makes friends with Omar (Said Taghmaoui), an earnest young man eager to wage jihad against what he sees as the oppression and corruption of the West. He is a far-flung part of a group that has recently bombed a variety of sites around the world and is, American intelligence agents believe, planning an assault in the U.S. itself.

Roy and Max are investigating the possible future terrorist attack and find that they know little about this group. It is decentralized and its members seem scattered. In fact, the only solid lead they have is Samir and they begin investigating him ó from his military service to the brushes with Islamic extremism that could have turned him into an agent against the U.S.

Though the trajectory of this story is made rather obvious in the trailer (and is pretty easy to guess from the filmís early moments), I wonít spoil it here. Itís fun to watch Cheadle act, to be who his character is in the moment while simultaneously possibly being something else too. Heís the rare actor who can make even middling material (which arguably this is) seem a lot more complex and layered, just by the way he performs it. This isnít like his sublime performances in Hotel Rwanda or Traffic, but if you put most other actors in this role youíd instantly have a lesser movie than what Cheadleís able to make of it. He gives Samir a conscience, one that isnít satisfied simply by being on the most-just side.

Aside from Cheadle, Traitor has mostly workaday performances from its supporting characters (McDonough in particular seems just a bit too one-dimensional, as though there wasnít time to smooth out his characterís rough edges) with the exception of Taghmaoui, someone who seems to be one of the handful of go-to Arab actors whenever the movie calls for someone with a Middle Eastern background. Even though his roles can seem repetitive, heís a good character actor and he here has good chemistry with Cheadle (theyíre paired together for much of the movie). Like Cheadle himself, Taghmaoui is an actor who deserves more attention than he gets.

A surprising little gem at the end of the summer, Traitor is an action movie that isnít afraid to show its thinky side. B

Rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences, thematic material and brief language. Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff with a screenplay by Nachmanoff from a story also by Steve Martin, Traitor is an hour and 53 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Overture.